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  • Rebekah Paxton

Is it all just "fake news"?

Perhaps the unofficial slogan of President Trump’s campaign, aside from the blazing “Make America Great Again,” was that the media only spewed “fake news.” We saw it in press conferences, rallies, tweets, and most other of his appearances during campaign season, and after the election. Even before Trump’s official nomination, Marco Rubio augmented this long-time Republican argument, saying “The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media.” But are Trump’s repeated allegations of an agenda of false and misleading reporting plausible?

It’s no secret that different news and media outlets have considerable biases, whether on the right or the left side of the political spectrum. This even makes sense—today, 90 percent of media stations are owned by six corporations, and all of these corporations are businesses. So, if the main goal for these networks is increasing viewership to turn a profit, why wouldn’t they cater to certain viewpoints or agendas in order to gain more support? In addition, large media conglomerates can be considered as lobbying organizations, donating money to political campaigns for decades. For example, since 1989, CNN, a news network that is part of the Time Warner Company, has donated more than a million dollars to the Clinton Foundation. Essentially, this monopoly on the media and news fed to the American public has serious financial motivations, and becomes an issue of integrity of the news we hear and take as fact.

In one of his interviews shortly before the inauguration, the President addressed a question regarding his frequent tweeting, stating that so many news outlets are staunchly against him, and he tweets to provide some counterbalance. As the campaign season for the presidency drew towards the end, 55 percent of those likely to vote reported belief that the general media was biased against the Republican nominee. Broken down even further, 60 percent of 18-to-34 year olds, 45 percent of “non-whites,” and 49 percent of women reported the same thing. As headlines upon headlines surfaced around the ‘atrocity’ that many called Donald Trump, it became clear that many networks had signed onto a smear campaign of epic proportions.

For example, as video footage surfaced of Trump saying undoubtedly crude and disrespectful things about a woman, a flurry of media activity arose surrounding his ability to represent women. The Washington Post issued a survey to determine how its readers feel Clinton and Trump would handle women’s issues in the presidency. However, the survey began with six questions concerning the leaked video and sexual assault allegations against the GOP nominee, with pointed language priming participants toward negative responses. Five questions asked whether participants were more or less likely to vote for Trump based on the video, whether the comments made in the video were considered “typical locker-room talk,” and whether participants believe that Trump “probably has or has not made unwanted sexual advances toward women.” The questions were immediately followed by, “Who do you trust more to handle women’s rights – Clinton or Trump?” Additionally, there were no questions concerning Hillary Clinton’s achievements for women’s rights, and no questions concerning her questionable leaked Podesta emails denouncing a number of groups. Those who understand survey research would agree, that this is hardly an unbiased attempt to find out participant’s true views on the presidential candidates. Furthermore, the Washington Post wanted to make a point, and did so not by building up Clinton’s political resume, but by tearing down Trump’s, and this is no way to combat social and media bias.

It is important to note that in July 2016 a report by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center surfaced articulating that Trump’s accusations of media bias were entirely false. In fact, the report stated that media coverage of Trump was higher than any other candidate, and was largely “positive or neutral” in language. While this may be true, the study only featured media information during primary season, which arguably was a distinct period in political attitudes and rhetoric from that of the general election. The study also says that language surrounding the campaigns at the time mostly focused on “the race,” in other words, if a candidate was “gaining ground” or “losing ground.” Furthermore, “positive language” was coded to include such phrasing, which does not necessarily show media favor, but simply Trump’s position among his other GOP competitors. One possible implication of this could be that right-leaning news networks indeed latched on to his meteoric rise, and that the left-leaning networks identified a candidate whom Hillary Clinton, for all practical purposes, should beat by a landslide in a general election. Additionally, once the party conventions were in full swing, media coverage of Trump was considered to be 75 percent negative in nature, while that surrounding Clinton was 44 percent positive.

As the election loomed closer, reporters, commentators, and talk show hosts on major networks and media outlets spun stories against Trump. Simply, with the rise of blogs, editorialized news content, and the enabling factor of social media, hard news sources have become virtually indistinguishable from pundit op-eds and heated rant blog posts, and the integrity of many sources has crumbled. Sources like Slate, The Atlantic, Now This, and even late night comedy shows are often used as primary news sources, while labeling Donald Trump as a ‘racist, xenophobic, homophobic misogynist’ with very little to back it up. Regardless of anyone’s personal correlations between Trump and such names, those words are entirely too slanderous for a blogger or late night comedian to throw around without any type of follow-up evidence. In the case of the 2016 general election, these sources veered toward a specific liberal leaning, a specific strain that only allows for a certain point of view, catering to a specific audience because hate and controversy is what sells, even if not true. While there are conservative reporters, journalists, and news networks, most members of the mainstream media are decidedly left-leaning. The Center for Public Integrity reported in October 2016 that journalists favored Clinton’s campaign 27 to 1 over Trump’s, as a figure of campaign donations.

After November 8, media coverage of any political topic became even more polarized. Now that the deemed impossible had indeed occurred, news became even harder to parse out the bias and the fact. This culminated when after the election, released an unverified, un-vetted dossier of potentially suspicious information about the former president-elect. Further, after a rather typical inauguration address, commentators immediately jumped to nitpicky and negative analyses. Clearly, many networks were still dedicated to polarize the situation, and not simply to deliver the facts.

So if Donald Trump did experience media bias during his long campaign, does this depart from the norm of media attacks during a presidential election? Using the example of Hillary Clinton in this election, the answer is yes. After the leak of Trump’s inappropriate comments about women, ABC, NBC, and CBS networks all reported on emerging sexual assault allegations against the GOP nominee for a combined total of 23 minutes. Coverage of WikiLeaks’ reveal of Clinton’s Podesta email scandal, in which the campaign mentioned “derogatory” remarks about various religious groups and the NAACP, totaled 1 minute that same evening. The same day, the New York Times released 11 stories about the same Trump topic, with no mention in any story about the recent leaks about the Clinton campaign. Even after his inauguration, news sites and blogs still mention Trump’s alleged sexual assault scandals, while the common theme of Democratic debates to “forget about her damn emails” has taken quite a hold, and the scandal seems to be a thing of the past.

The statistics and research presented here is not to discount the fact that many scandals erupted during the presidential race for good reason. However, the way the media handled these scandals depending on the involved candidate has been wildly biased. Amidst the tumultuous events of the past two years leading up to this new administration, the departure of the media from its responsibility of delivering facts to American citizens has been irreparably damaging to our society. Because of the intensely polarized system of reporting seen in this country as of late, ‘truth’ is a very distant concept in our political climate. Even supposedly non-partisan fact checking organizations like PolitiFact and have come under fire for over-exposure of certain groups and individuals, and for omission of others. Americans largely feel discarded by the media and no longer place their trust in an institution that is supposed to exercise and enable our First Amendment freedoms. Now, it only enables the agendas of large corporate media conglomerates. This is all to say, unfortunately on both sides of the ‘media’ ideology, as an aspiring informed citizen I am constantly left confused, frustrated, and wanting of some sort of truth. Truth is not and should not be accepted as relative, yet in this state of society I am forced to pick and choose what kind of truth I want to hear. I, as well as millions of other Americans, no longer know where to find it.

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